COP 15 was held in Copenhagen in December of 2009 – just 3 years ago. As with meetings of this kind before and after, there was a sincere hope that this would be a, or even the turning point for the approach of post-, hyper-, and almost-industrialized societies in dealing with their physical and biological environment. The escalating and converging crisis of climate change, loss of biodiversity, environmental degradation, and general disruption of the only planet that we humans have to dwell on simply seemed too acute to ignore politically. But nothing happened.
In March of the same year, the University of Copenhagen co-hosted an international climate research conference, gathering most internationally recognised experts in the field. This was done to provide politicians with the most recent scientific knowledge, when COP 15 was to take place later in the year. A report (1) was written by a group of prominent researchers, seeking to summarize the content of more than a thousand contributing presentations. The future is here described in the following words: … scientific evidence has now become overwhelming that human activities, especially the combustion of fossil fuels, are influencing the climate in ways that threaten the well-being and continued development of human society. But nothing happened in December later that year.
The political system might still deny reality, but people are now waking up to the sad facts around the globe and evermore find the courage to abandon the futile position of total denial. However, as political solutions continue to evade international society, an increasing number find themselves ending up at the opposite side of the continuum: absolute despair. There are many reasons for this: The complexity and magnitude of the issues makes it hard to see how we as individuals can do anything with a noticeable impact. The grief and loss that follows in the wake of comprehending the astrocity of our destruction and killing simply leaves many of us paralyzed. The fear and challenge of altering personal and cultural traditions and habits into sustainable practices leads many of us to reject the possibility of change at all, even in the face of permanent and catastrophic disruption to the home of humans, animals, and plants. As the author of ’Illusions – The adventures of a reluctant Messiah’ has noted: Argue for your limitations and surely they are yours (2)
Sitting in Frankfurt Airport waiting for a plane to Graz, on my way to yet another workshop on ethics and climate change, I couldn’t help thinking that this very act constituted an important part of the problems that confronts us. Not so much in the obvious sense of using fossil fuels to go to a conference on ethics and climate change, which is self-defeating in a very real sense, but more in terms of what kind of thinking that can take place in an airport or a similar environment. Basically my question was: What kind of human do you become in an airport? It struck me that the advise from Aldo Leopold that we should try to think like a mountain (3), suddenly became very scary indeed, if the word ‘mountain’ was replaced by the word ‘airport’.
The British author Douglas Adams has said that it is no coincidence that in no language has the expression ’pretty as an airport’ arisen (4). But even more important is it that airports seem to be so removed from nature as to make it obsolete. At most nature is allowed to participate in our life-worlds in the airport as a disturbance. As something that takes the shape of snow, wind, and thunder storms and delay us in our travels
Sitting in the airport, it struck me how easy it is to forget our reliance upon and relationship with nature in such a setting. How the human order imposed on this tiny bit of the universe, with all its clean surfaces, straight lines and square perspectives seem designed to tell the story of human mastery over a disorderly universe; how the notion of being in control is embedded into almost every artefact in an airport, from the systematic ordering of flights and gates, to the more than predictable sandwiches and generic coffee that is so processed and removed from nature that you can almost believe it was cooked by engineers in some secret room below the helter-skelter of the transit area.
In an airport it is easy to believe that humans are in control – that we are distinct from nature or that nature is an obstacle to overcome through technological means so as not to disturb our plans. In an airport nature becomes environment. Nature is no longer the all-encompassing reality that gave birth to us, but that which we see around us as a resource – from high above, if we manage to get off the ground. The notion of environmental problems as something that must be managed seems almost to grow out of the shining walls. The idea that we as humans have the right to change our surroundings to fit our needs is almost embedded in the rationality of the uncomfortable plastic-chairs. In an airport it is very easy to believe that we will be able to control the environment, to continue our lives without delay. Through technology we will be able to find fuel for transport systems that will not change the climate, meat for our plates that does not come from suffering animals, and resources for our consumption that will not pollute the air, land, and water during the phases of production, use and decomposition. In an airport, humans seem to be in control.
The question must be asked however: what if the claims made by eco-psychologist, -philosophers, -theologians and others that have not bought into the idea of human supremacy, are true? What if is only when we are exposed to nature as that which is at the same time independent from our selves and that which we are embedded within that we can see our nature? What if we need o see our being embedded in the more than human life world (4), as David Abram terms it, if we are to be fully human? What if it takes hugging a tree to understand that we are not merely dependent on the physical and mental nourishment we receive from the world everyday, but that we cannot actually realize who we are until we engage with it? That we only become human when we realize we are more than humans? Arne Næss termed it discovering our ’Ecological Self’ (5). It is the experience that our skin, the very outer layer of our bodies should not only be seen as a boundary that divides me from the rest, but also as a horizon and meeting place where I meet that which is also me.
If there is some truth to the claim that our psyche needs nature to develop in a healthy way; if we need all our capabilities to figure out what is actually going in the mysterious meeting point between humans and nature; if we want to know how to proceed from here and if we are to come up with a responsible response to the crisis that we have brought upon ourselves and the rest of us – then an airport might not be the best place to think about these ideas. Or even stronger: An airport is definitely not the place to do this. On the other hand, perhaps it is only through experiencing the total alienation from nature that exists in such settings, that we, if we take the time, discover that there is something important missing. That in the very confrontation with the artificiality and functionality of architecture and technology a longing for nature can be found. The point must then be, however, to leave the airport and seek what we miss.
In that light it certainly seems problematic that we usually leave the airport and go to meetings to discuss issues of climate change, loss of biodiversity and extinction of species in settings that resemble airports so. Meeting rooms are seldom designed as places where we meet the wilderness of the world. Congress centres are often equally as devoid of non-human life and natural objects as airports. Basically it seems that we try to think about nature surrounded by stuff brought into the world by humans for the sake of humans.
It is therefore hardly a surprise that we, in these temples of what Chellis Glendinning calls techno-addiction (6), run the risk of underestimating the issues, because it is easy to forget that we are destroying and killing a part of our selves. Politicians and civil servants sitting in designer chairs at tables made of wood bent and shaped by humans to satisfy an aesthetic sense, eating nature shape and bent by humans to do the same, might just have a hard time remembering how serious the situation is – indeed why they are in such a setting at all. In other, perhaps more simple words: As the illusion of human detachment from nature pervades the setting they are in, it also pervades their understanding of the enormity of the problem.
The other risk is that the setting generates the illusion that science and technology are the only answers. When living, breathing, and moving around in environments almost exclusively designed by and for humans, we run the risk of overestimating the ability of technology to shape the world to meet our needs. We begin to see the ’technofix’ (7) as a sufficient solution. At the same time as our belief in scientific and technological abilities is being stretched to the limit, we seem to have lost the trust in our own ability to adapt to the situation. Current levels of consumption are seen as inevitable and even suggestions of moderate reductions of meat intake by for instance 1/3 are seen as hysterically idealistic, while public money is spent on research into growing animal proteins in factories. We are, so to speak, stuck in a circle of needs and technology, unable to see other options.. We have become the species that simply refuses to adapt to the rest of nature, but insist on bending everything until it meet our needs or indeed snap in our faces. If we spend some time in nature, we might, however, be reminded that this is what life is: adapting to the life-world one is embedded in.
All this leads up to a simple suggestion: next time you want to think about who you are and what to do – go sit under a tree! Next time you wonder why you are here and what it is all about – dive into the ocean! Let us arrange the next international political meeting on climate change in a forest; let us meet there and sit by campfires, sleep in tents, and forage for food. Let the politicians and the rest of us feel the connection to the rotting leaves, the dew on the leaves, the mosquitos and the smells and sounds of the more-than-human-life-world. Let us seek to remember who we are, before we decide who to become. In that way the economic interests, the fear of change, the overestimation of abilities and techno-addiction could perhaps be balanced a bit – just a little bit.
Thanks to Thomas Derek Robinson for valuable suggestions
Mickey Gjerris is an associate professor at the Institute of Resource Economics, Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen. Originally trained as a theologian, he did his Ph.d. in bioethics. Today he works within a phenomenologically inspired philosophical framework on the subjects of climate change, animal ethics, bioethics and ethics of nature. Mickey is also a member of The Danish Ethical Council (www.etiskrad.dk), a strong believer in smoked tofu, enjoy hugging trees & watching clouds and has an almost passionate relationship with his iPhone.
(1) Richardson K et al (2009): Synthesis report from ‘Climate change: Global risks challenges and decisions’. http://www.climatecongress.ku.dk/pdf/synthesisreport.
(2) Bach R (1977): Illusions. The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. Random House
(3) Leopold A (1949): A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press
(4) Adams D (1988): The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Simon & Schuster
(5) Abram D (1996): The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage Books
(6) Naess S (1982): Self-Realization, in Gullvåg I & Wetlesen J (eds.): In Sceptical Wonder. Inquiries into the Philosophy of Arne Naess on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday. Oslo, pp. 270-281
(7) Glendinning C (1994): My Name is Chellis and I`m in Recovery from Western Civilization. New Catalyst Books
(8) Kunstler JH (2012): Too Much Magic. Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. Atlantic Monthly Press